In 2002 Gwen Goodhew was dismayed at the lack of resources she found for teaching languages to young linguists. Five years later, her research revealed changes for the better

It became apparent, some time ago, that there would be a desperate shortage of gifted scientists and engineers if action were not taken to stimulate the interest of young people. Initially, efforts were made to woo older secondary pupils until it was realised that it can be too late by that stage because attitudes have hardened and other interests taken over. So universities, research organisations, businesses and professional bodies began to offer courses, summer schools, competitions and clubs to lower secondary and primary pupils. As a result, when I was asked to compile a list of ‘Opportunities for Our Gifted Youth’ by the DfES five years ago, I was able to identify a wide range of activities for the enthusiastic young scientist or engineer, a range that has broadened in the intervening period.

When I was compiling that list, I became aware of a very different situation within the field of modern foreign languages (MFL). There was a dearth of really exciting opportunities for the young linguist. The situation has since been aggravated by the removal of the requirement that all KS4 pupils study a foreign language. This has meant that some schools have cut back on their MFL teaching staff with a knock-on effect on both the resources available in schools and the status of the subject area. So when I was recently given the chance of creating another directory of opportunities, this time for eight- to 13-year-old gifted and talented pupils living in the north-west, I was curious to see what changes, if any, had occurred in MFL. Had educators, businesses and other interested parties begun to take action to reverse the slide? Had anything been done to encourage the primary-age linguist, whose early forays into French and Spanish can so easily be snuffed out in the first weeks at secondary school when they have to repeat the skills they have already acquired? Is credit yet given to children from other countries and cultures who use other languages out of school? What about the bright dyslexics, who are turned off languages by the emphasis on reading and writing, but why might have high ability in terms of listening and speaking?

Well, the answer is that, yes, things have been happening.

Rewarding progress
One recent initiative by OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations) in association with the DfES is Asset Languages, a languages assessment scheme that complements the DfES’s Language Ladder. This is an exciting development in many ways:

  • It is the first language qualification open to primary school children, secondary students and adults.
  • It provides opportunities for children from other cultures or bi-lingual homes to get credit for their language skills.
  • Assessments in reading, writing, speaking and listening are carried out separately so individuals can obtain credits for those aspects of a language with which they are successful or comfortable.
  • Twenty languages from Europe, Asia and Africa are covered by the programme and more are in the planning stage.
  • Schools do not have to change their teaching programme or approach because assessment is based on a series of graded ‘can do’ statements.
  • Pupils who do not elect to study a language at KS4, can take an Asset assessment at the end of KS3 so that they have some recognition of what they have achieved so far. This could be built on at a later date.

Learners can enter at six levels from Breakthrough through Preliminary, Intermediate, Advanced and Proficiency, to Mastery, with the first four levels linking to the National Curriculum. There are additional smaller steps or grades in each of the four skill areas so that success can be achieved in a series of small bites, eg for Grade 1 at Breakthrough level in ‘Reading’ a candidate would have to show that ‘I can recognise and read out a few familiar words and phrases’. To achieve Grade 2 at the same level, a candidate would need to show that ‘I can understand familiar written phrases’. There are five testing opportunities throughout the school year so that pupils can be tested and rewarded with certificates whenever they are ready and then move on. Although acquiring certificates and paper qualifications should never become the sole purpose of language learning, there can be little doubt that this initiative could provide motivation for many potential linguists from all sectors of the community.

A competition for primary pupils
A chance conversation with a proud grandmother led me to the EuroTalk Junior Language Challenge, which is open to all primary-age children. The strength of this scheme is that children are introduced to a number of unfamiliar languages without the need for a specialist language teacher to support them. In fact they can work on the activities at their own pace or even make arrangements to carry on at home if they are particularly enthusiastic. The most important requirement is a Windows network with a broadband connection. Children can be entered as part of a school group or, where a school is not taking part, parents can enter children as individuals.

  • Once a school or individual has registered, they will receive an interactive CD with listening and speaking activities, games and quizzes for the first language to be studied. For all of these activities they score points, which are recorded. As points can go down as well as up if incorrect answers are given, youngsters are encouraged to approach the tasks with care. All schools have to work to the same deadline and when that is reached, final scores are saved.
  • Another disc containing a second language is sent to the school. Meanwhile the 30 top scorers
  • for the first language in each region are invited to attend a regional semi-final where they play
  • games and carry out activities from the second language CD.
  • A third CD containing yet another language is sent after the semi-finals. Again children practise the activities and games. Later the most accomplished semi-finalists attend a national final at the Language Show in London in the autumn each year.

The languages that pupils learn are not usually the ones they go on to study at secondary school. For example, in 2007 the first language is Polish and the second will be Chinese. This is a wise move because it should prevent children entering secondary school in Year 7 being turned off languages when they are asked to repeat work with which they are already familiar. The novelty factor is also a powerful incentive. In previous years, some African languages have been included. Imagine the satisfaction of being able to flummox your parents with a totally unfamiliar tongue!

The entry fee for each child is £2.50. Some schools include the EuroTalk Junior Language Challenge in the school curriculum while others present it as part of an after-school programme. Children who have a natural ear for languages, get huge satisfaction from these activities and it can be the beginning of a lifelong interest. What is now needed is for Eurotalk to come up with a follow-on initiative so that children enthused by this activity can move on to another stage.

Support from universities
Finally, some universities, recognising the danger to their languages departments, are beginning to run special programmes for gifted and talented children. Lancaster University has been very active in this way and runs MFL activities both through their Department of European Languages (DELC) and through the Department of Continuing Education (DCE). Language days are offered by DCE in conjunction with DELC for Years 9-12 where pupils tour the campus with student ambassadors, who can speak to them in the language being studied if this is appropriate. They visit the library, discuss the value of studying languages (with both students and lecturers) and later explore aspects of French, German, Italian or Spanish cultures. Year 9 pupils from Highfield School in Blackpool took part in a French language day. This gave them a greater awareness of the value of languages and the exposure to French, at a higher level than they usually experienced, challenged and stimulated them.

The Department for Continuing Education at Lancaster University has run programmes for G&T pupils on Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese and would be prepared to offer other languages where there is demand. Such courses can be powerful triggers for those G&T pupils with a passion for the exotic.

However, as with the Eurotalk Junior Language Challenge, the desperate need is for follow-up activities so that the child inspired by a session on Mandarin Chinese for example, can begin a long-term pursuit of this interest. Approaches similar to that employed by the Cambridge Schools Classics Project run by Cambridge University to promote Latin could be adopted for a wide range of languages. (Latin is taught in schools where there is no specialist teacher using textbooks, DVDs and online activities with specialist support and feedback provided through email, web-based conferencing and video-conferencing.)

It is true that schools are beginning to make good use of commercially produced language programmes but there would be great value in harnessing, in an interactive manner, the support and expertise available in many university language departments.

Attracting students back
Measures such as the introduction of languages into primary schools, the Language Ladder and Asset Languages should certainly help to ensure some continuity of provision and attract our more able students back to the study of MFL. It is to be hoped that this, together with the growing personalisation of learning and greater flexibility being encouraged in the curriculum, will allow schools to respond in a more sustained manner to those students whose passion for languages is currently unfulfilled.

Gwen Goodhew was G&T coordinator in a secondary school and Knowsley EiC G&T coordinator. She is now a freelance writer/editor on G&T provision.